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Greenpeace’s 'Save the Arctic' campaign has flaws

In June, Greenpeace, the environmentalist organization, launched a campaign to “Save the Arctic.” Specifically, they want to create a global sanctuary around the North Pole and establish bans on offshore oil drilling and industrial fishing in the Arctic.

The campaign, which has attracted a number of high-profile celebrity endorsements, intends to attract 1 million signatures, subsequently listing them on a scroll, placing them in an indestructible pod, and lowering them as part of a Flag for the Future designed by the youth of the world to the seabed at the North Pole. (I couldn’t make that last part up if I tried!)

I am trying very hard not to be curmudgeonly about the campaign, which no doubt is based on good intentions. (In fact I was very annoyed a few months ago at all of the haters of the Kony 2012 campaign who, while naïve, did a tremendous job of raising awareness both of the use of child soldiers and of the notorious warlord.)

But it is striking me as both unbalanced and ill-informed, because it embraces an impression of the Arctic as an area to be preserved, frozen in time as it were (forgive the pun), a reminder of an era when human activity was not so widespread.   

I don’t think this image is helpful at all to the inhabitants of the Arctic, only a fraction of whom are indigenous, and an even smaller fraction of whom use the Arctic in a traditional manner without reliance on resource exploitation for employment and revenue. We can indulge ourselves with the idea of an Arctic free from industrial activity, but that will do nothing to promote much-needed social and economic development in the region. 

I think a much more productive approach is to promote sustainable development, rather than prohibit and ban development and economic activity altogether.     

Greenpeace plans to lobby the United Nations General Assembly to pass a resolution demanding legal protection for the Arctic, which would subsequently ‘build momentum’ for an agreement to create a sanctuary and ban the drilling and the fishing.

Practically, this strategy is very flawed. They draw comparisons to the 1961 Antarctic Treaty and the 1998 Protocol on Environmental Protection. Greenpeace is not the first to place the Arctic and Antarctic in the same category. Probably the most high-profile comparison was from the European Parliament, which in 2008 suggested that the European Commission should “be prepared to pursue the opening of international negotiations designed to lead to the adoption of an international treaty for the protection of the Arctic, having as its inspiration the Antarctic Treaty.”

The problem is that unlike the Antarctic, which has no sovereign, the Arctic Ocean is effectively owned by the five coastal states that surround it. Under the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a state has exclusive rights to all of the natural resources in the 200-mile zone extending from its coastline, and the right to harvest mineral and non-living material in the subsoil of its continental shelf if it extends up to 350 miles (in some geological circumstances, even farther) from its coastline. 

Although Russia, Canada, the United States and Denmark have yet to submit their UNCLOS claims (Norway’s was approved in 2009), one Chinese scholar, Guo Peiqing, has estimated that up to 88 percent of the seabed of the Arctic Ocean would be under the control of the Arctic littoral states if the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf were to approve all the existing or expected claims to the Arctic Ocean continental shelf. A General Assembly resolution would not take precedent over this existing international law, and in fact would be a risky business for any states planning on exploiting any of the resources in their Exclusive Economic Zones. 

The established practice in the international system is to let individual states -- all of whom, with the exception of Russia, are democratic in the Arctic -- decide how best to balance economic development and environmental protection.  (I don't suggest this practice is perfect, only that it is very unlikely to be replaced by UN General Assembly resolutions.) 

Notably, Greenland -- which is 88 percent Inuit, self-governing, and led by the Inuit Community party -- has decided to proceed with drilling with the hopes of generating enough income from oil and mineral royalties to become fully independent from Denmark, on whom it currently relies on transfers for about half of its budget. A ban on offshore oil drilling would severely compromise this objective and as such is likely to be vehemently opposed by the island’s democratically elected, indigenous representatives. 

Not to mention the many Arctic inhabitants and communities in Alaska, Norway and Russia who are already employed by, and dependent on, the offshore oil industry. 

This is not to say that there is no merit in certain aspects of what Greenpeace is proposing. Amongst the propaganda (there is no other word to accurately describe the description of a “dangerous shadow looming over the pristine Arctic as… oil companies and politicians [plot] to carve up the icy North”), there is an entirely sensible proposal to develop a "new, legally binding, comprehensive agreement for the protection of the Arctic.”

The idea has been suggested previously, most notably by the WWF. And the Arctic Council appears to be taking it seriously: it established an expert group, led by Sweden, the USA and Iceland, on ecosystem-based management at the 2011 Ministerial, and its Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) working group has been conducting an Arctic Ocean Review  to “analyze the applicability of a regional seas agreement in the Arctic,” with recommendations forthcoming in 2013. Inasmuch as Greenpeace can raise the profile and support for this initiative, it should be supported. 

The task at hand for the Arctic is not preserving the region, but protecting it, so that northerners and global citizens alike can benefit from its vast store of natural resources without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. Quoting former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the choice is not to fish or protect – but to protect in order to fish better.

On the other hand, if Greenpeace is seriously interested in preserving the Arctic environment, it should be advocating a ban on the use of greenhouse gas-emitting products and services, not on their production. The war on drugs, as one example, has taught us that limitations on the supply of a product are fairly useless if demand remains unaddressed

The high-profile signatories to the Greenpeace Arctic campaign, and probably most, if not all of the 1 million petitioners, are as guilty (as am I) of contributing to climate change as any individual Shell executive or employee.  The real challenge lies not in banning production in areas that are remote enough to have no perceivable impact on the southern majority (although at high costs to local development). The challenge is in either changing global consumption patterns -- thus far an impossible task -- or adapting to them.

This commentary is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.